Kevin McPherson: March Madness Margin Narrows

 

 

After a promising 11-1 start, the Arkansas Razorbacks basketball team stumbled out of the gates of SEC play with a 1-3 mark that included their first two home losses of the season. A road win over Tennessee was the only bright spot in those first four SEC games, and a home loss to Mississippi State a few days later was the real stinger, dropping the Hogs’ RPI from the mid-20s all the way down to the low-40s. It also triggered ESPN NCAAT Bracketologist Joe Lunardi to drop the Hogs from a projected 8-seed to an 11-seed (truly on the bubble).

A look ahead from that early vantage point signaled one glaring certainty: That the margin for error would be oh-so small for these Hogs the rest of the way if they were to build a resume worthy of an NCAA tournament at-large invitation to March Madness.

Three games since that moment of clarity, the mantra is “So far, so good.” The Hogs have won three straight games to improve their overall record to 15-4, their SEC mark to 4-3, and their RPI to No. 33 (all at the time of this writing). That RPI improvement was roughly 10 spots, and subsequently Lunardi inched the Hogs back up to a projected 9-seed if the season ended today.

If you’re wondering what all this means, we’re building up to it.

In that 1-3 start to league play, two of those games (both losses – at home in the SEC opener against Florida and on the road against Top 10 Kentucky) represented what appear to be half of only four total opportunities to play teams with Top 25ish RPIs in the SEC, which is an 18-game league slate.

In a nutshell, with 12 games still to play (11 of those being SEC games), only two road games late in the season against RPI No. 20 South Carolina and RPI No. 11 Florida give the Hogs chances for quality wins, while the other 10 games are mostly against teams ranked outside the RPI Top 50 that could represent NCAAT-resume-killing bad losses. Only Georgia and Ole Miss are currently ranked in the RPI mid-40s, but they might also be outside the Top 50 by the time the Hogs face them.

So, the margin for error has gotten microscopically small for the Razorbacks. They defeated lowly Missouri and LSU at home in the current 3-game win streak, but must still play both of those teams on the road. A loss to either team likely bursts their NCAAT bubble.

The last four games probably gives us a realiable road map for the Hogs to finish the season. Again, the MSU loss brought the Hogs down 15 or so spots in RPI and dropped them 3 spots in projected seeding, then the three consecutive wins seemed to have healed and restored the RPI and seeding projections.

Going forward, for every loss, the Hogs probably need to win 3 to overcome the RPI damage. Not an exact science here, but seems like a reasonable path back to the Dance. With 12 games to go — again, 11 of those are SEC games, the other is a road game against Big XII cellar-dweller Oklahoma State on Saturday — the Razorbacks probably need to go 9-3 (that’s 3 wins per loss) for a 24-7 overall record (means either 12-6 or 13-5 in SEC) to feel good about their NCAAT at-large chances.

An 8-4 finish might be good enough — especially if one of those wins comes at either South Carolina or at Florida – but maybe not. Arkansas’s best win to date is RPI No. 56 UT-Arlington, back on Nov. 18, and it very well could be their best win once the season ends. The Hogs are 0-3 against the RPI Top 50 (No. 3 Kentucky, No. 11 Florida, and No. 19 Minnesota), but including those losses they are 5-3 against the RPI Top 100, with two of those wins on the road, and 10-1 against the RPI 100-plus.

Let’s not forget just last season, the NCAAT selection committee left out South Carolina, which finished 24-8 (11-7 SEC). Granted, the teams’ RPI/SOS are not apples to apples, same with the RPI strength of last season’s SEC compared to this season’s SEC … BUT, the point is this looks like another SEC slate that offers very few chances for quality wins, and the Hogs have missed on half those chances already.

Of course, the SEC tournament would give the Hogs more opportunities to pick up quality, Top 25-50 RPI wins, but the goal is to lock up an at-large bid by the end of the regular season, which can be done by winning 75% of the remaining 12 games.

By grinding and toughing out an ugly, come-from-behind road win on Tuesday against Texas A&M, Arkansas has shown it can get this done. The Hogs won in similar fashion against Tennessee on the road and against Texas in what was like a road game in Houston. The Hogs are 3-2 outside the state of Arkansas this season.

And if you look ahead at the next 12 games – five are at home with seven on the road – winning out at home and winning 4 of 7 on the road is doable. That would mean a 9-3 finish for a 24-7 final regular-season record. The Hogs are 11-10 in their last 21 SEC road games spanning back to the 2014-15 season, so a 4-3 road record to wrap up the season is reasonable, not far-fetched.

I’ve consistently pounded home the notion that the strength of this Arkansas team is its backcourt and bench play, while always understanding that the one player who impacts the Hogs’ NCAAT chances the most is preseason SEC Player of the Year pick Moses Kingsley.

Kingsley, who scored a season-high 24 points in Saturday’s 99-86 home win over LSU to become the 40th Hog to score 1,000 points in a career, continues to be an enigma. For most of the season, he was a second-half player who struggled on the offensive end of the floor while getting plenty or rebounds and blocked shots.

But of late, he’s become more aggressive offensively. And though that is not yet a consistent theme, he scored 16.3 points per game in the last four games (well above his season average of 12.3). At the same time, his rebounding and shot-blocking have plummeted — current 8.1 rebounds-per-game reflects 5.8 in last 4 games, and current 2.6 blocks-per-game reflects 1.5 in last 4 games. Kingsley needs to be a consistent, positive impact – not just for a half, and not just at one end of the floor.

And if you were paying attention to the second-half of the LSU game, it wasn’t just Kingsley getting abused on defense. As a team, the Hogs were playing a “soft butter” defense that yielded 49 points in the final 20 minutes. You could use another dairy-product analogy, “Swiss-cheese defense”, if you prefer, but the takeaway is: While Arkansas’s most-important player is still searching for his best self as an impact player at both ends of the floor, it seems to be a microcosm of the Hogs as a team — still looking for the right combinations to consistently play and look like an NCAAT team.

The heat is going to be turned up in the final-third of the season as teams fight for their postseason lives, so Kingsley and the Hogs taking a step forward is paramount if they are going to handle their business.

The Hogs might have taken a step forward at the combo-4 spot. They had been lacking consistency, toughness, and production there, so it was very encouraging to see junior-college transfer Arlando Cook take the reins in the last two wins over Texas A&M and LSU. In the 40 combined minutes that he played in those two outings, Cook had 14 points, 13 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, and 1 block.

The guards continue to do the heavy lifting, though, and the 5-deep corps of Daryl Macon, Jaylen Barford, Anton Beard, Dusty Hannahs, and Manuale Watkins are still at the wheel of this back-stretch drive to March Madness. The trek resumes with two road games this week — at Vanderbilt on Tuesday and at Oklahoma State in the SEC-Big XII Challenge on Saturday — before a home game against Alabama on Feb. 1, which marks the end of the first-half of SEC play.

Get through that stretch no worse than 2-1, and the Hogs are still on course with the second-half of league play smack-dab in front of them. The rest of the journey is steep, but the destination – getting back to the Dance – is in view and reasonably attainable for these Arkansas Razorbacks.

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Kevin McPherson is a former sportswriter and editor at both the Arkansas Gazette and Arkansas Democrat, as well as a former contributor to newspapers in Northwest Arkansas — covering Arkansas Razorbacks basketball, high school football and basketball, and basketball recruiting. He’s entering his 13th year as a mortgage banker with Bank of England, but he still covers Razorback basketball and recruiting as well as high school sports. You can join him live every Monday and Thursday at 1:30 CST on The Hog Call, KREB 1190 The Fan in Northwest Arkansas by clicking here: http://1190thefan.com/listen-live/ You can also follow him live on Twitter @ARHoopScoop.

moses kingsley ready for march madness

 

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